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  • "A Mysterious and Ambiguous Display of Tactics":The Second Siege of Fort Meigs, July 21-28, 1813
  • Larry L. Nelson (bio)

American troops commanded by William Henry Harrison built Fort Meigs at the foot of the Maumee River rapids near present-day Perrysburg, Ohio, during the War of 1812. British and Native American forces besieged the post twice in 1813. In past accountings, historians have focused on the first of these sieges, fought from April 28 through May 9. The battle was a dramatic contest involving an extended artillery duel, massed infantry charges, hand-to-hand combat, thrilling escapes, scenes of both singular courage and astonishing cowardice, and remarkable reversals of fortune.

Likewise, scholars have tended to minimize the post's second investment, fought from July 21 to 28. On this occasion, a British force much weaker than the one that had attacked the garrison in April and May surrounded the post and unsuccessfully attempted to lure the American defenders from the stockade. The invaders hoped that the Americans, once away from the fort's protection, would be vulnerable to an ambush. But the plan failed when the Americans refused to leave their post. As a result, the attackers simply withdrew after inflicting few casualties and giving no serious damage to the post itself. Moreover, after withdrawing from Fort Meigs, the invading forces then attacked Fort Stephenson at Lower Sandusky (present-day Fremont, Ohio), where a staunch defense orchestrated by that post's commander, Maj. George Croghan, dealt the attackers a severe and unmitigated defeat.1 [End Page 5]

For the most part, historians have viewed the second siege of Fort Meigs as little more than an inadequately planned and ineptly executed prelude that foreshadowed the decisive and far more influential victory at Fort Stephenson. But close examination shows that during the second siege of Fort Meigs, British forces waged a deft and subtle campaign against the American garrison and that the battle carried lasting consequence. Moreover, a study of the garrison before and during the campaign reveals the strategic dynamics and tactical decisions that defined a period of great uncertainty during the Northwest campaigns of the War of 1812.2

American troops first occupied the Maumee Rapids in early February 1813 after a long series of reverses within the northwest theater. On July 17, 1812, British troops captured Fort Michilimackinac. In early August, the Americans abandoned Fort Dearborn near present-day Chicago, Illinois. A few days later, the American commander at Detroit, William Hull, surrendered the entire Northwest army and the Michigan Territory to the British. On January 22, 1813, the Americans lost a second, reconstituted Northwest army at Frenchtown on the River Raisin near present-day Monroe, Michigan, when British and Native American forces destroyed troops led by James Winchester attempting to reoccupy Detroit.3

Construction of Fort Meigs began on February 2. Harrison intended the post to serve as a supply depot and staging area to accumulate the men and supplies necessary for him to advance into Michigan, repatriate Detroit, [End Page 6] and then carry the war into Canada. When completed in late April, the fort's earth-and-log stockade enclosed nearly ten acres and contained seven blockhouses, five artillery batteries, two underground powder magazines, numerous ancillary structures, and a complex system of trenches and traverses, or earthen mounds that provided protection for those within the fort's interior. Artificer yards and workshops, a bakery, and a harbor and boat landing extended for a considerable distance in all directions beyond the post's exterior lines and across the flats lining the Maumee River below the garrison.4

A large force of British regulars and Canadian militia, commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Procter, assisted by as many as twelve hundred Native American warriors nominally led by the Shawnee Tecumseh laid siege to the American post in late spring 1813. Tecumseh's warriors surrounded the post and harassed the defenders with small-arms fire while the British and Canadian troops established five artillery batteries on both sides of the Maumee River and attempted to bombard the Americans into submission. Harrison's troops, too few and too inadequately supplied to take meaningful offensive action against the attackers, sheltered...